Allow for Student Exploration in 2017


Dream and innovate.

Each of these verbs are goals that I set for my students as 2017 comes knocking. My students, as I’m sure some of yours grow weary of the status quo question and answer approach after reading a piece of text.

These goals grow even more complicated because, as educators, it has become mandatory for us to focus on the upcoming state standardized test in our current educational landscape.

However, state test scores do not tell the entire story. As facilitator and editor-in-chief of my students’ success, it is necessary to ensure students feel there is value in their education. This article is my attempt to and share these values with my colleagues on how I’ve learned to best meet those needs.


Each January, I poll students by asking them to identify their own dreams for the new year as well as 10 years down the road. Knowing their passion and where they want to go at a young age allows me to expose them to new opportunities. For instance, the large number of students who dream of being a professional athlete are often not in the small percentage of those who actually make it into the professional ranks. However, there is still a passion for sports which can be recognized and harnessed into exploring a potential career.

For example, a sports fanatic can explore becoming an athletic training, sports writer, or sports information director at a college or university. To allow them to identify experience their dream, opens up an opportunity to speak with our high school athletic trainer about the profession – seeking pros and cons. In addition, I can also use professional connections to set up a Skype meeting with a former colleague of mine who works as a professional sports announcer and writer. The activity begins with creating a bank of questions about the profession – not the glory of being around professional athletes or knowing them – which we practice prior to the real Skype conversation. Furthermore, I can often set up a visit to a local university and speak with a sports information director as well as the graduate assistants working in their office. My best experience includes attending a sporting event to allow students to see someone doing the job they are exploring.

To capstone the experience, I challenge students to take their dream and make an artifact to display their path to achieving their dream. For example, students who are wired for the 21st century are already immersed in social media (e.g., Instagram). Therefore, I instruct students to create a timeline using Instagram showing different life moments (e.g., graduating high school, taking SAT, first internship, shaking hands with professional in the field, earning first job, being accepted into master’s program). It is simply a visual map to reinforce their dream, and they get to be as creative as they wish. To submit the project, students must submit their own personalized hashtag, so I can search for each project on Instagram.


Informational and argumentative texts are a large part of my curriculum. Students explore texts from many sources as well as current events with an emphasis on opinion editorials. Each text offers a unique opportunity for students to identify the author’s purpose of the text and challenges the students to view the world on a larger scale. Incorporating and supporting the state standards in the manner in which they are assessed is up to the teacher.

Suggestion: Abandon the traditional assessment and rewire your thinking to align with the 21st century learners in your classroom. Students are and have already been creators of media using all sorts of technology, but often forced to power down during school hours. Instead, open a charging station in your room, incorporate the technology into your curriculum, and take a risk to train and trust students to use their devices for educational purposes.

Challenging your own willingness to bring innovation brings new norms into the classroom. Every students attending school in the current educational landscape should have completed a green screen production before matriculating. It offers a chance for those multiple choice and writing student experts in your classroom to become uncomfortable and those students with other talents to excel with creativity. Both sets of students are better for their participation, regardless of their success or failure.

One example of green screen projects is allowing students to develop a newscast reporting the author’s purpose (RI6) behind multiple informational texts on a similar topic – similar to a research simulation task found on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) Assessment. Teamwork and collaboration to layout the production prior to its creation is a valuable process to teach students, which can go beyond the classroom, and developing the actual production supports many writing standards (W2, W4, W6). The simple premise of the green screen projects can be replicated and modified to meet the needs of numerous standards.

Take a Risk

It is tempting to take the easy route when planning your first month of instruction back in 2017. However, kids deserve the best we can offer them. Giving them a chance to dream and innovate, using technology they are already comfortable using, can and will change and improve the trajectory of their educational endeavors; don’t wait any longer.

–Brian Cook, Ed.D.–

**This post was also published in ASCD’s InService Blog.

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Reinforcing Point of View via Flip Grid

Seeing potential title for the 2017 Global Read Aloud, I am reflecting back on all the fun my students had with Orbiting Jupiter by Gary Schmidt. From our home classroom in Pocomoke City, MD, we connected two schools regularly in the San Francisco area as well as a school in rural Iowa. Each group of students offered a noticeable difference in personality, background knowledge, and experiences.

It allowed my students to interact with students in a new way.

Midway through our novel, we tackled point of view and perspective writing letters as certain characters of the book — Joseph, Jack, Maddie, and many more. The voice and passion of the students came alive because we used a relatively new application called Flip Grid.


It allowed us to create discussion portals between the three classrooms, and my students were very excited. After recording their responses, they received authentic feedback from other students and teachers.

Our first attempt was not perfect, but it was the first step in supporting the Maryland College and Career Readiness Standard of Speaking in my classroom. Months later and with additional practice, my students are very comfortable with Flip Grid and explaining their answers.

One small step for innovation and one giant leap towards students mastering speaking and listening standards.

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#EduPlans for 2017

A colleague of mine posted his 2017 plans must be SMART (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Bound).


Here is my school list:

  • Introduce a PMS colleague to Skype or Google Hangout for their students; follow through with the using it.
  • Make digital classroom activities become more routine. I have a lot of heavy times using it nonstop and some dead times. More consistency is needed.
  • Develop better speaking and listening activities for students in the classroom and initiate student TED talks in 2017.
  • Qualify the Pocomoke Boys and Girls XC team for states; place top two in the region for boys’ and girls’ squad.
  • Develop opportunities for #PocomokeScholars — current and future — to have access to new literature during summer months.


Here is my professional list:

  • Begin technology integration graduate certificate for my 6-credit required for Maryland recertification; my time starts over in July 1.
  • Write and submit one article or guest blog post a month; January is already done!
  • Improve my portions of my online class sessions for my adjunct gig.
  • Get more involved with the Eastern Shore Reading Council.
  • Submit a proposal for a national conference. (Done!)


Here is my personal list:

  • Begin and finish a 21-day fix program. I hear and see great results from many friends. It is time I get on it. Thank you to my wonderful wife who agreed to take this journey with me.
  • Read with my children daily (or have my wife as my substitute).
  • Power down mobile devices during family time. Time with young children is too precious to waste on an iPhone.
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Courageous Conversation: Thanks to Orbiting Jupiter

Christmas break has only been a few days, and I already re-read Orbiting Jupiter, a young adult literature book by Gary D. Schmidt.

This past semester I taught Orbiting Jupiter as a part of my enrichment class because it offered an opportunity to reinforce many of the Maryland College and Career Readiness Standards, and it was one of the most engaging young adult books I read in quite some time. I could not put it down.

My wife read it too. But her reaction was quite different than mine.

I was excited to teach it and have courageous conversations with students who were living in a poverty culture where they could relate to the book. My wife — my devil’s advocate — continued to give me scenarios about the maturity of the content.

I agree … yes, it is mature. However, it was what was best for my students.

In a short 14 day span there were two murders in the community where I teach and some of my students had ties to the victims and perpetrators. It was a scary time and many teachers would not discuss it.

It was a time when students needed to have a trusting adult to listen and I wasn’t walking away from an opportunity to serve my students. I did a close-read of the newspaper article in our local paper to bring up the topic. Many students had some wild responses on why it happened or what they heard.

I sat back and listened.

I asked questions for clarity.

I wanted to hear their opinions.

Then is it was my turn … Orbiting Jupiter: a book that included: a young man named Joseph who made numerous life changing mistakes, who came from a single-parent home, who had a father that was destructive and an alcoholic, who lost his life too early because of another, and had caring people who loved Joseph unconditionally.

Each of these components of the book leant itself to this authentic tragedies — loss of life — in the community where I teach.

Those 20 minutes comparing the real situation to the novel were breathtaking, the reason one gets into education. Often students were cheerleaders for Joseph always wanting the best for him during his troublesome decisions, but it was different when it happened in their community. I often asked whether we should judge Joseph, or anyone for that matter, by their worst moments.

I did the same when speaking of the local murders.

Joseph, a 14 year old fictional character, received a different level of empathy and compassion from my students than the individuals in our newspaper article. It brought a struggle to forgive a real person, who committed a real crime compared to Joseph who made juvenile mistakes.

Tears did not drop, but eyes watered.

“What do we take away from both of these situations — Orbiting Jupiter and the indigents in our community?” I asked during my closing thought.

Here are some of the student responses:

  • Novels and real life can be the same. Joseph lost his life in an act of violence, the same as someone in [our community]. Both were dealing with dangerous people. Each person’s family must find a way to get past this violence.
  • Mistakes as a kid or an adult follow you forever. If everyone did not make these mistakes maybe they would be alive for Christmas.
  • I feel sympathy for everyone who died and their families. Each person who dies was special to someone and probably had their good qualities. We must cherish one another and value the time we have on this Earth; it can be gone before we know it.
  • Books can happen in real life. The stories are different, but both resulted in death. We should try to forgive each person who caused the deaths because life will be stressful if we do not. It is hard to forgive someone, but our heart must let it happen.
  • Life is not fair as our principal shared with us. Joseph had some bad things happen to him and probably so did the others who died, but we cannot let those moments show who we are. We must define ourselves by how we act and do in school. We must work when we do not want to to be successful, like Dr. Cook said.

Some responses were truly heartfelt (and was asked not to be shared with anyone), but the wow factor was simply having the conversation and allowing student voice to appear. Too often we silence children or do not take their feelings into consideration. This day was the first step in allowing students to share how they feel about mature content.

Orbiting Jupiter was the first chance to students to really discuss mature content in a fictional setting, similar to what they see in their real community. Thankfully, we read the book in time to be able to use it as a springboard to talk about this difficult time in our community.


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Virtual Reality: #PocomokeScholars Take One

One #PocomokeScholar ignites her background knowledge by using Google Cardboard. The tool allowed students to develop knowledge and understanding

One #PocomokeScholar ignites her background knowledge by using Google Cardboard. The tool allowed students to develop new knowledge and understanding of one facet of an informational text.

I often talk about being wired differently to my colleagues and state our students are even wired more differently than me. Therefore, employing the same pedagogy is only getting old results — unengaged, bored students. It wasn’t easy, but I was ready to take a new risk today.

I could tell when the day began, it was going to be difficult. The network moved at the rate of a hibernating bear, and I was losing signal more than I wanted to admit with the Chromebooks.

But I was determined to break down one barrier today — poverty.

Not making excuses, but students — especially mine — lack background exposure to many basics. However, I wasn’t going to let that be today’s barrier. I concluded during my lesson planning it was difficult for students to know the difference between captivity and being free from the lens of a tiger.

Photographs and sound effects lack a wow factor, which is needed for many digital natives. I wanted to empower their learning with a memorable experience and be able to access that experience was only the beginning.
Over the summer, I purchased an inexpensive ($15) toy called  Google Cardboard that is used for virtual reality (VR) learning experiences using my iPhone (or an Android works too). I played around with it a lot, but wanted it to be a tool that students could gain new, unfound knowledge with and run. There were a handful of VR apps out there, but I went with Discovery Education VR because I believe it will be an evolving tool due to the noise Discovery is making in educational technology.

Source: Example of placing iPhone into Google Cardboard.

I chose the Experience the Elusive Tiger because it supported the informational text “Emancipation: A Fable” by Kate Chopin which looks at a lion’s decision on whether to leave captivity when a cage door was accidentally left open. My class discussed the pros and cons of being in captivity and being free in the wild. However, the words not the page did not jump out at them as many were lackadaisical, but I asked for a volunteer  (with their eyes closed of course) and placed the Google Cardboard on their face to hold.

The students experiences a virtual jungle where lions roamed free and walked right up to them. The collection of 3D image panoramas and videos allowed my student to explore the setting, which was valuable to the text. One at a time, volunteers came forward and determined the setting affected their decision as the lion whether to stay in the unlocked cage or freely explore the wild outside captivity.


The Google Cardboard was a mechanism to turn lethargic into intrigued and transformed their knowledge. Share is in today’s pedagogical risk below.

Today, I wanted to break down a barrier of having limited background knowledge and offer an innovative way of learning. It worked! By lunch, other teachers were coming down to see what students were talking about. At that time, I shared how Google Cardboard might work in their own classroom. I hope this was more than integrating a technology tool and setting up a platform to dive deeper into learning experiences with students.

Future Attempts:

  • Google Expeditions: Take a virtual field trip to a museum, college/university, space, etc. The Expedition has highlighted different key points of learning; it also allows for the trip leader to annotate the screen…very cool!
  • Virtual Reality You Tube: It seems newer, but allows others to upload their VR experience. Let’s face it, common people make the best ideas. Furthermore, this might be a location where my students can make their own VR moments to share with the world.
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My commitment to equity

I often participate in Twitter Chats, but sometimes I lurk too. This evening I finally jumped into one particular chat for a short time as the discussion focused on teaching students in poverty. I love having a moment to feel like the student and take-in knowledge of my colleagues. It has even been some time since the Twitter Chat that I actually sat down and felt comfortable to reflect upon my thoughts.

This year, I am teaching one of my most challenging groups who inhabit poverty every second of every day. There are so many challenges within our community — broken homes, violent crimes and even murders, limited parent education levels, individuals who cannot provide for their children. But the potential is AMAZING and the DESIRE to succeed is there. Some of my Scholars just need additional time with a caring adult who knows the path to success and can model it.

I am going to have to be that adult.

I know I am a teacher; it should go without saying.

However, this group takes me outside of my comfort zone daily.

They have experienced things I only read or hear about on the news. There are many where I stay up at night wondering what my students go through. Are they nestled in their bed or are they taking care of their own siblings?

It worries me.

Is the task too monumental?

Am I ready?

Can I relate?

What can I do differently?

Taking a Leap of Faith

LifeChanger of the Year nominee Nikki Blake and I vowed to know no limits this school year with this challenging group. We are no longer letting poverty be used as an excuse. Our students can and will achieve great things.

But … it is going to look different. The mannerism to get to success will not look like it did in the past.

My principal, who is overly supportive, speaks of grit and resilience often; my colleague and I are displaying it daily.

We are knocking on doors, visiting churches in the summer, making home visits during planning, volunteering time in the In-School Suspension room, bringing out-of-school suspension students after hours to get help, and walking students home who feel uncomfortable from time to time.


Most of my scholars are the farthest to the right in the photo above. They are dug into the ditch of poverty and desire to work hard to get out; they want a better life. But equality is only moving us up a short distance in the process. My students are making progress through some growing pains.

But … it is not enough.

The world is moving so quickly and they need the best everyday.

The extra mile to Equity

I am starting an after school program in January for my Scholars. It may have a catchy description of how I tagged some reading standards to this group to make it an after school program.

It may be viewed as a waste of time.

I may be pounding my head in the sand, but #KidsDeserveIt.

We are going to work on a little bit of everything — literature for urban students, math, homework, study skills, job training, life planning, current events, decision making, job exploration, college & career readiness exploration, etc. If it is good for kids, it is going to be done.

I’ll admit, I am nervous because this group is beyond my comfort level somedays. However, it is time to loosen tie and take our vow one step farther.

I may not see gains in standardized test scores this year.

I may not see students get on the honor roll.

However, I am going to do everything within my ability level to ensure success for these Scholars because they need a little bit more love and care than some of my higher achieving students. And more importantly, they deserve it.

This is their year to shine.


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Explore the World with Cultural Box Exchange

#PocomokeScholars are shown opening their Cultural Box Exchange. The box was the first of four they will receive this year among our partner classrooms.

#PocomokeScholars are shown opening their Cultural Box Exchange. The box was the first of four they will receive this year among our partner classrooms.

Minimal background knowledge.

Unsure of the world.

Limited exposure.

Not anymore.

I teach in a rural community where students have limited exposure to many opportunities. Each year, I make it a personal mission to expose them to the community around them as well as the rest of the world. However, it is not always as easy as one would think.

We are constantly caught up with instant communication (i.e., e-mail, text messages, social media posts) that sometimes we lose the personal touch of a handwritten letter or message. The touch of knowing someone took that extra time to write you something or personalize it to you.

Cultural Box Exchange was my answer. Similar to the old Flat Stanley project, scholars brainstormed all the pieces of their communities and researched pamphlets from area tourism locations to see what they were missing. Over a two-week window, students visited local attractions with their parents or spoke with teachers about these places; in addition, scholars asked about the importance these places meant to our community. Unleashing the knowledge about home to these scholars was very special.

Receiving Your Box

A group of individuals signed up and joined a four-month rotation where we would ship our boxes from place to place. My groups consisted of schools in New Jersey, California, Kansas, and Italy. Wow, to hear students explore cultures different than ours — yes, cultures across the country are quite different. It is breath taking to see them connect common shopping items with these new areas. They never knew where or how these foods were produced.

It might sound simple, but it is going a long way.

We are learning beyond the curriculum!

Writing Prompts

After our initial exploration, students classified each item into a category (ex–food, tourism, history). We spent a day exploring via the Internet those items. Each students wrote a short reflection on their findings. These simplistic tasks caused a lot of inferencing and collegial conversations among peers.

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